Old School Favorite: Kaufman's Bagel & Delicatessen ($.72)
In a recent post, USA Today declared Kaufman's as the best bagel outside of New York, so I obviously had some serious expectations. But I was also a bit leery, especially since I hadn't heard many other people declare their love for the place. But as soon as I walked in, something felt right. It's an impressive operation, with loads of delicious looking goods scattered around, including house-cured corned beef. Kaufman's plain bagel has a beautiful browned exterior, but what really sets this bagel apart is the malty tang of the interior. No other bagel came close to matching it.
Cross-Section of Plain Bagel at Kaufman's Bagel & Delicatessen
The insides are also surprisingly soft, almost pillowy, with none of the doughy and bready characteristics that doom most bagels. As you can see, there is also a visible crust around the upper portion of the bagel. This lent the bagel real crunch, at least on the top. It's a little too bad that the bottom wasn't as uniformly crisp, but that could have just been an issue with this sample. In fact, the poppy seed bagel I also tried did have a better all around crust. Both were well salted, so that it never felt like a chore to eat them untoasted. That said, if you are in the mood for a topping, Kaufman's does sell some excellent cream cheese.
New School Favorite: Reno ($2.25)
After trying Kaufman's, I couldn't wait to get to Reno to see how favorably it compared. I knew that Reno's bagels were much more expensive (actually, over three times more expensive), but I bet that they'd easily best them. But as soon as I picked up the offering from the newish Logan Square joint I realized that comparing the two would be impossible. First off, Reno doesn't offer a plain bagel, so I had to go with Sesame Seed. And then there is the size...
Cross-Section of Sesame Seed Bagel at Reno
Reno's bagels are skinny, almost half as tall as some of the other examples I tried. Then there is the color, which obviously indicates that some whole wheat flour was incorporated. This move gives them a rounder, more complex taste, one that I can see some people preferring. There is also a distinct maltiness and tang, even if it doesn't quite measure up to Kaufman's. I also wish they were a bit crispier, but there is no doubting how wonderful these bagels are. Whether or not you're willing to pay for them depends on whether you like this specific style.
New School Favorite (Continued): Little Goat ($2.00)
Litte Goat's plain bagel had the brownest exterior of the bunch, along with a crust that was crispier and more substantial than Reno's. Though still on the small side, they were taller in the middle.
Cross-Section of Plain Bagel at Little Goat
Once again, a darker flour was used, giving them a nuttier flavor. The insides were slightly less flavorful than I would have liked, missing the complexity of Reno and the tanginess of Kaufman's. But this is kind of nitpicking, especially since other flavors had more going on. In particular, the Grumpy Goat had tangy goat cheese baked on top, along with a slight sweetness that was really appealing.
The Solid Contender (Suburb Edition): New York Bagel & Bialy Corporation ($.75)
New York Bagel & Bialy Corporation, located in the northern suburbs, is a much more focused operation than Kaufman's. While I was there, a steady stream of customers came in and out, so I had no worry that I'd get a fresh bagel. The plain bagel wasn't quite as brown on top as I'd like, but it did seem more uniform.
Cross-Section of Plain Bagel at New York Bagel & Bialy Corporation
Indeed, the crust was far more uniform than at Kaufman's, even if it was less crispy overall. Though I enjoyed the chew, each bite was missing salt, a fact that can easily be solved with some cream cheese. Of course, that's how most people eat their bagels anyway, and toasting would correct any crispness issues. This is the kind of dependable and solid bagel joint most people would be lucky to live by.
The Solid Contender (City Edition): NYC Bagel Deli ($1.00)
I was expecting a serviceable, if mostly utilitarian, bagel experience at NYC Bagel Deli, but the plain bagel turned out to be a genuine surprise. With a nicely browned exterior and a crispy crust, it actually had the most in common with New York Bagel & Bialy Corporation.
Cross-Section of Plain Bagel at NYC Bagel Deli
The insides were also lighter and less doughy than I was expecting. But its most distinguishing feature is also the most controversial. This was by far the sweetest bagel of the bunch. I'd rather have some sweetness than no flavor at all, but I wish these were reigned back a bit. But there's no doubting that these are a great option for people living in Lincoln Park.